History Friday: Admiral Nimitz’s Kiwi Radars & Power Politics in the South Pacific

As I opened my previous column, I will state again, one of the strangest experiences doing historical research is following a trail of research on something you think you know, and then suddenly you go down Alice’s rabbit hole and find a “Detailed Reality” that was something completely different. This trip into “Detailed Reality” started as a search for how the US Navy used land based radar to control fighters in World War II (WW2) and turned into a story of institutional power politics between the American government and both its New Zealand and Australian allies. Power politics that resulted in another “convenient lie” from the US Navy, New Zealand and Australian governments being parked on General Douglas Mac Arthur’s post-war reputation.

Radar in WW2 was a classified subject. Some portions of that Pacific theater’s wartime records for radar were declassified at the end of the war as a part of the normal jockeying for post war budgets. The US Navy emphasized, naturally enough, the ship based radars in its institutional history. Land based radars in the Pacific were a different matter. There were numerous US Navy, US Army, US Army Air Force and US Marne Corps radar units in the course of WW2 in the Pacific, and much of their story remained classified through the late 1980s and early 1990s. The failure of many historians to go there after that declassification was a methodological cue for me to follow up that line of investigation to “peer around the established institutional narrative.” The place to start with the land based radar narrative in the Pacific was Guadalcanal. It was here that the US Navy learned to use radar to fight ships at night, and to a lessor extent to use ship mounted radar to direct fighters. The key radar development at Guadalcanal, however, wasn’t either of those. It was the use of radar directed fighters by the “Cactus Air Force” out of Henderson Field in 1942-1943, which birthed all the wartime US Navy Department land-based radar organizations. And both the US Navy and USMC learned much of this trade from radars produced and maintained by the New Zealand Radio Development Laboratory (RDL) scientists and the radar controllers of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

A New Zealand Long Range Air Warning (LRAW) Radar -- from Echos Over The Pacific
A New Zealand Long Range Air Warning (LRAW) Radar, Alternative broadside aerial on left. Truck with double Yagi ‘assault’ aerial and equipment to the right, in front of radio truck. — Photo Dr R S Unwin from page 11 of “Echos Over The Pacific”

Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR)
New Zealand as a British Dominion was brought into the radar secret in 1939 before the Tizard scientific mission to the USA, well before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It followed the same pattern of scientists leading and controlling radar development that the USA and the British Empire did. And like those other nations there was a great deal of resentment of this by the New Zealand military, a resentment that played out later in the war as a preference for UK and US radars.

The New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) established two facilities for radar development – one, led by Charles Watson-Munro was at the Radio Section of the Central NZ Post Office in Wellington, and the other, under the responsibility of Frederick White, was at Canterbury University College in Christchurch. These scientists then proceeded to develop a series of ship warning (SW), coast watching (CW), coast defense (CD), and ship warning, gunnery (SGW) radars before Pearl Harbor to outfit Royal New Zealand Navy ships and to support the British East Indies Fleet at Singapore.

These efforts were overcome by events following the destruction of the Royal Navy’s battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Repulse and the collapse of the British position in Malaya in the opening weeks of the Imperial Japanese offensive.

Like its fellow British Dominion Australia, New Zealand was left to make the best deal it could with the United States. In exchange for Lend Lease aircraft and other equipment, the New Zealand government committed everything it had available to support the American position in the South Pacific. During this period the New Zealand Radio Development Laboratory (RDL) was organized over both radar production facilities and made the US Navy aware of its capabilities, trying to drum up orders and political visibility. This caused a great deal of New Zealand governmental angst as both politicians and the senior New Zealand Military officials wanted to use that capability to defend New Zealand first. However, once the new commander of the South Pacific theater Admiral Halsey knew of this, he immediately requested not only radars, but the personnel to operate them. Radar and radar technical personnel were extremely short in 1942-43. No more so than in the South Pacific.

The first Kiwi radar unit to arrive on Guadalcanal was Radar Detachment no. 52. a “Ground Control Intercept” or “G.C.I.” radar unit that could determine aircraft altitude — which the American SCR-270 radar could not — and direct radar equipped night fighters. This is what the RNZAF official history says about Radar Detachment no. 52.

The New Zealand GCI set was the first of its kind in the South Pacific. For the first two days after the Americans had landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942, fighter direction had been carried out from the USS Chicago and fighter cover had been flown from the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. When the ships withdrew from the area the Americans had neither fighters nor radar.
By 20 August F4Fs and SBDs were based at Henderson Field, but no adequate provision had been made for fighter direction. A search radar model SCR 270-B was put into operation in September and was used for the purpose. The type was satisfactory in giving warning of the approach of hostile planes but was not suitable for plotting heights and tracks accurately, so that the American pilots in the air could seldom be vectored exactly on to the enemy. This limitation was more apparent after the middle of November when the Japanese began frequent night raids. For night-fighter control the SCR 270-B was inadequate.
The arrival of the RNZAF unit in March 1943, therefore, filled an important gap in Guadalcanal’s defences. The GCI set could give the accurate readings, particularly in altitude, which were necessary for night interceptions. The set was operated by RNZAF personnel; and United States Army, Navy and Marine, as well as New Zealand, controllers directed the fighters. None of the controllers had had combat experience with GCI, and results in the first month of operations bore out Major Best’s contention that a period of training in New Zealand for both controllers and pilots should have been arranged.

The ability of Kiwi radar to determine height for directing fighters was a decisive advantage that helped break the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force in the Guadalcanal campaign. See below:

The unit kept watch twenty-four hours a day, except for an hour and a half each morning when it was off the air for maintenance. Two controllers were on duty each night, one experienced and one under instruction. During the day the duty controllers stood by in camp where they were on call in case of daylight raids. The operating crew was divided into four watches, each consisting of an NCO in charge and four airmen in the operations room, plus a radar mechanic. One airman acted as long-range warning plotter, one as GCI plotter, one as PPI reader, and the fourth as height-range reader.
The unit’s first major operation took place on 7 April when the Japanese sent over a large formation of dive-bombers and fighters in a daylight raid. The unit gave accurate plots and heights to the Island Fighter Control, information which contributed largely to the Japanese loss of thirty-three aircraft reported as shot down by American fighters. After the battle it received a letter of commendation from COMAIRSOLS for its share in the day’s work.
In the last big daylight raid on Guadalcanal, in the middle of June, the unit was equally successful. Nearly all the Japanese aircraft which took part were claimed as having been shot down, and most of the plots on which the fighter direction was based were passed to Island Fighter Control by the unit. After June there was progressively less enemy activity. The unit had no further opportunities to gain spectacular victories; but it had achieved its object, as its presence was one of the contributory factors in keeping the Japanese away from Guadalcanal.

At Admiral Halsey’s request the New Zealand military sent two more GCI radars and three of the “Chain Home Overseas Low” (COL) radars to Guadalcanal to complete its radar net. This was later followed by several “ME” [mobile/microwave? experimental] 10-cm (3-GHz) radars for coast-watching and surface-fire-control of USMC 155mm coast defense gun batteries. The electronics of the ME radars were mounted in the cabin of a 10-wheel truck and a second truck carried the power generator and workshop. Equipment was built in both Christchurch and Wellington. The radar had a single parabolic antenna was on the roof, and a plan-position indicator cathode ray tube (CRT) was used, the first such in New Zealand. PPIs were the “God’s eye view” for WW2 radar and were hugely important in identifying friend from foe in the crowded waters of the Solomons.

Like the GCI & COL radars, the first ME went into service in early 1943 in support of a U.S. torpedo-boat base in the Solomon Islands.

ARGUS ARRIVING…and Departing
As the American naval offensive up the Solomon’s gained momentum in 1943, the US Navy started to field special “radar commando” units called “ARGUS” after the Greek mythical figure with hundreds of all seeing eyes. These units were specialists in providing radar and fighter direction early in amphibious landings. They were formed together with a naval sea bee (construction battalion) into an “Acorn” unit to rapidly place a forward air base into operation. As a part of that mission they obtained six Kiwi Long Range Air Warning (LRAW) radars to provide long range GCI fighter control in the first day of an amphibious landing. A total of six LRAW were built between December 1943 and March 1944. Ed Simmonds’s and Norm Smith’s book ECHOES OVER THE PACIFIC describes the LRAW as follows:

“…Working at 97 Mc/s with a power output of 150-200 kW using GEC NT99 valves, this unit was truck-mounted and had two aerial systems. It also had a low power requirement using a diesel driven 3kW alternator. For combat conditions there was a double Yagi aerial system mounted on the roof of one of the trucks so enabling the unit to be operational within 30 minutes. The second aerial was a broadside array which stood apart from the operating truck and could be erected in about three to four hours. The range of the Yagi aerial was said to be 90 miles on a single aircraft and 125 miles on a group. In comparison the broadside array gave ranges of 100 and 180 miles respectively.
The RNZAF did not operate the LRAW itself but about six LRAWs were utilised by the Americans. The first one left New Zealand in December 1943 and was used in the landings on Nissan Island in February 1944. Others were used at Emirau Island, Peleliu and Ulithi.
A possible key to their success was the fact that an RDL expert-in-charge accompanied the equipment and he was determined to get the best out of each unit.”

There were ultimately 33 named Argus radar units stood up by the spring of 1944. Then, between the spring and summer of 1944, they were mostly decommissioned and scattered, with one or two exceptions lasting until spring 1945. The ARGUS units had lost the bureaucratic war for existence within the Navy Department in favor of USMC radar equipped “Air Warning Squadrons” associated with USMC fighter groups. Whatever else could be said about the Marine radar units, they didn’t have Kiwi radars or the taint of association with the Kiwis…which was a huge matter starting in January 1944.

Power Politics and Payback in the South Pacific
When 1944 arrived, and it became clear that the Japanese were a fading threat to Australian and New Zealand interests, both Dominions made a coordinated policy statement called the “Canberra Pact” regards the Solomons and Central Pacific Islands, stating that “…occupation of wartime bases in the Pacific Islands should not give any power continuing territorial rights there.”

This January 1944 statement had immediate and far reaching repercussions both for Kiwi radar cooperation with the US Navy and Australian-New Zealand military participation in the war with Japan.

The Roosevelt Administration and the US Navy in particular were mortally offended. All further cooperation on matters radar with the US Navy ceased after the last LRAW was delivered. The Kiwi Military then turned on the RDL with the growing availability of foreign radars and bought no further domestic radars.

The ANZAC powers were told bluntly by the Roosevelt Administration to butt out and the American Joint Chiefs directed that both powers be limited to mopping up operations in their local area, to avoid “facts on the ground” problems with ANZAC troops later. Whether MacArthur promised the Australians a piece of the action in the Philippines or not, the “Canberra Pact” destroyed any ability of MacArthur to fulfill this promise…that assumes that MacArthur desired it, which he did not.

The foreign offices of both British Dominion governments could be forgiven for misunderstanding the FDR administration’s Wilsonian anti-colonialist self-determination politics and policy after the League of Nations fiasco. They had spent the inter-war years studying up on British politics, not American. The elected politicians of both governments missed the “Boob Bait for Bubba”* overtones that American anti-imperialist political positions hypocritically applied to European, and especially British, imperialism, not to American Imperialism.

There are few things that so infuriate an American presidential administration as being correctly called on executive branch hypocrisy on an issue important to one or more of their governing coalition constituencies.

Be that as it may, both the US government and the ANZAC powers needed a good story to cover their burying the hatchet post-war over the sidelining of the ANZAC militaries in the mopping up role. Given the Australian military’s dislike of MacArthur, which it shared with both the US Navy and General Marshall’s men at the Pentagon, blaming MacArthur solved the difficulty.

And, strangely enough, this institutional cover story also served MacArthur as Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP) in the Japanese occupation. MacArthur’s enemies’ attribution to MacArthur of political power and prestige he really didn’t have during the war helped him with implementing the reforms of the Japanese political system. From MacArthur’s point of view, what wasn’t to like about his enemies saying he was more powerful than he actually was?

Thus ends another “History Friday” column that went looking for answers for one line of research and ended up in a completely different “detailed reality.”

* “Boob Bait for Bubba” was a term coined by the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for tough-sounding rhetoric designed to placate conservative voters. Moynihan applied the phrase to Bill Clinton’s 1992 pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” when it later became clear that Bill Clinton had no intention of following through when he became president.

Notes and Sources:

1) USN Argus Unit Historical Group
Our Story

2) Ross Galbreath, “New Zealand Scientists in Action: The Radio Development Laboritory and the Pacific War” in Roy M. MacLeod (ed), “Science and the Pacific War, pp 211 – 227; ©2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Google books preview accessed 1/01/2014

3) Radars in WWII

After sending engineers to the Rad Lab in the United States to study their products, a project to develop mobile 10-cm (3-GHz) systems for coast-watching and surface-fire-control that might be used throughout the Pacific. With a great demand for such systems, an experimental unit was developed and tested before the end of 1942.
Designated ME, the electronics was mounted in the cabin of a 10-wheel truck and a second truck carried the power generator and workshop. Equipment was built in both Christchurch and Wellington. The radar had a single parabolic antenna was on the roof, and a plan-position indicator CRT was used, the first such in New Zealand. The first of these went into service in early 1943 in support of a U.S. torpedo-boat base in the Solomon Islands. Some of the MD radars were used to replace 200-MHz CW sets, and several systems were built for operation on RNZN minesweepers.
As the Allies progressed upward in the Pacific, a need arose for a long-range warning set that could be quickly set up following an invasion. The RDL took this as a project in late 1942, and in few months six Long-Range Air Warning (LWAW) systems were available. These operated at 100 MHz (3 m) and, like the microwave sets, were mounted in trucks. A single Yagi antenna was normally used, but there was also a broadside array that could be used when a more permanent operation was established. The range using the Yagi was near 150 km; this increased to over 200 km with the broadside.

4) Royal New Zealand Air Force, CHAPTER 15 — Radar Units in the Pacific, Despatch of no.52 Radar Unit to Guadalcanal, © 2013 Victoria University of Wellington,
http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2AirF-c15-3.html accessed 1/01/2014

5) Ed Simmonds and Norm Smith, “ECHOES OVER THE PACIFIC: An overview of Allied Air Warning Radar in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines Campaign” Copyright Ed Simmonds and Norm Smith, Published by Radar Returns, 39 Crisp Street, Hampton Vic 3188, Australia, ISBN 0 646 24323 3, Internet Edition – November 2007

6) United States Navy ARGUS Units.

10 thoughts on “History Friday: Admiral Nimitz’s Kiwi Radars & Power Politics in the South Pacific”

  1. There was a slight edit for spelling and grammar.

    Due to operator error this took down the post for a few minutes.

  2. Brilliant.

    But why wouldn’t the Kiwi’s buy their own domestic RDL because of a shit fit with the Yanks? In other words I’m not following the national pride/money/power chains of conflict.

    BTW – In WW2 the United States was an Imperial Power, and the Empire we conquered was the British.

    So you can understand Australia/New Zealand’s reluctance to play along. At the time everyone knew what was happening, certainly poor Keynes did.

    Trent if you put this all in a book you’d do the man more justice than say William Manchester. Who admired the man and in particular his low causalities, but still being a Marine could never forgive him.

  3. The injustice done MacArthur by shall we say the Dept of the Navy deprives future practitioners of war all these incredible lessons.

    I wonder if T/T can put that right.

  4. I can understand now the accent made of the failure of the ARMY radar at Pearl Harbor to provide usable warning to the Navy commanders.

  5. I was wondering if you would come across the kiwi radars. I heard about them from an book containing essays presented at a history conference in NZ in 1995 (which is also where I heard about the Canberra Pact). Sources included DSIR papers declassified in 1992.

    Essay was “Dr Marsden and Admiral Halsey: New Zealand radar scientists in the Pacific War” by Ross Galbreath.
    Published in Kia Kaha: New Zealand in the Second World War, Edited by John Crawford
    ISBN 0-19-558438-4 (hbk) 2000
    ISBN 0-19-558455-4 (pbk) 2002
    Conference was Kia Kaha: Forever Strong (Wellington May 1995)

    Thank you for doing this series of posts, I’m finding them informative and interesting.

  6. >>In other words I’m not following the national
    >>pride/money/power chains of conflict.

    The Kiwi senior military was very pro-British as well as anti-RDL.

    UK radars became available in numbers in mid-1944.

    Buying British radars scratched two itches for the Kiwi brass.

  7. There were two minor changes to the article based on reader feedback.

    The Kiws deployed a “Chain Home _Overseas_ Low” on Guadalcanal.

    Also, the “Boob Bait for Bubba” term for describing American hypocritical political rhetoric needed definition for some readers. So a link and a definition were added.

  8. Whitehall Says:
    January 4th, 2014 at 1:42 pm
    I can understand now the accent made of the failure of the ARMY radar at Pearl Harbor to provide usable warning to the Navy commanders.

    Don’t know if you are entirely correct.

    The Joint Committee heard testimony that the Jap air armada was picked up by chance, as the operator stayed on the set after 7.00 a.m. The radar worked, the inexperiance of the operating crew and the whole attitude of the junior and senior Army officers made sure that Pearl Harbour was pre-destined!

    You get exactly what you pay for!

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